Realism emerged in the art world in the 19th century in Europe. Artists moved away from the Age of Reason of the 18th century to a new need for creating art with historical and realistic accuracy. According to Honour and Fleming, the moderate painters of France were known as the juste milieu, or the happy medium. They painted in a style that “demanded detail – local color in a literary as well as in an artistic sense – and detail rendered with illusionistic veracity; the button-hole of a cloak, the pommel of a dagger.”
Some works of art in the Realist period echo the styles of earlier centuries, including Classical, Renaissance, Baroque, and Romantic principles. Some Realists felt they were breaking with academic principles of art. Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was a French painter who embodied the historic nature of Realism. He moved on from the self-articulated “trappings of Romanticism.” His first prominent work, A Burial at Ornans, was completed in 1850-1851. This painting arranges a community of people around a countryside burial site, complete with a Catholic priest, altar boys, and a deacon carrying a crucifix. The crowd is arranged in vivid detail around the central burial site. The human expressions are somber in keeping with the event.
As another leading Realist, Edouard Manet (1832-1883), shows a very different style in painting that would soon give way to Impressionism. Manet painted humans in natural settings like Luncheon on the Grass (1863). In this composition, a pale, naked woman lounges beneath the trees in the company of two well-dressed gentlemen. In the background, another woman clad in a white nightgown bends over the grass in deep thought. An oil on canvas, Luncheon on the Grass shows the influences of great painters like Raphael, but the artistic style is still groundbreaking.
In the United States, Realists also continued the true depiction of subjects. With Madame X (1884), John Sargent (1856-1926) presents a beautifully-endowed woman with creamy skin. She turns to the left away from the audience. Dressed in a black formal gown, her delicate hand rests on a short table. This painting shows how the depiction of human forms differed from, but also echoed, the 17th century works of painters like Rembrandt and Peter Paul Rubens.
When you consider works of art from the Realist period in the nineteenth century, you are not yet prepared for Monet’s sudden breakthrough called Impressionism. One might argue that Edouard Manet’s works suggest the new style, but avant-garde artists such as the Impressionists would naturally continue with tradition, including Manet’s theme of bourgeois relaxing in the park.